Folk Queen Jean Ritchie Dies At 92

2002JeanRichie

Jean Ritchie

Appalachian music icon Jean Ritchie, who influenced generations of folk and country stars, passed away on Monday, June 1, at age 92.

During her long and illustrious career, Ritchie revived and popularized the dulcimer, preserved hundreds of traditional mountain songs, recorded more than 30 albums, wrote seven books, helped establish the Newport Folk Festival, wrote songs for many country and bluegrass stars, and was a musical touchstone for Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Judy Collins and more.

Joan Baez called her “the Mother of Folk” music. Dolly Parton said, “When I grow up, I want to write just like Jean Ritchie.”

The legend’s final album, Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, was released by Nashville’s Compass Records label in 2014. It featured contributions from Seeger, Collins, Kathy Mattea, Janis Ian, Robin & Linda Williams, Tim O’Brien, Suzy Bogguss and Dale Ann Bradley, among many others.

Mattea recorded Ritchie’s “West Virginia Mine Disaster” and “Black Waters.” Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was popularized in 1979 by Johnny Cash, and was also recorded by Michelle Shocked, The New Coon Creek Girls, Bobby Goldsboro and others. Kenny Rogers recorded the folk legend’s “Tennessee Bottle.” Emmylou Harris did Ritchie’s “Sorrow in the Wind” on her landmark 1979 LP Blue Kentucky Girl.

“Blue Diamond Mines” was cut by bluegrass artists including The Seldom Scene and The Johnson Mountain Boys. “My Dear Companion” was on the acclaimed 1987 Trio LP by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Others who recorded Jean Ritchie’s songs include Roger McGuinn, June Carter Cash, Laurie Lewis, Alice Gerrard and Graham Nash.

Jean Ritchie was the youngest of 14 children born to a farm family in the mountains of Viper, KY. She grew up singing traditional folk songs. As an adult, she learned they were called “hillbilly” or “country” numbers.

With a college degree in social work, she moved to New York City in 1947. She sang her traditional tunes in Greenwich Village, where she was heard by Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Oscar Brand, all of whom praised her. In 1950, she married photographer and filmmaker George Pickow (1922-2010).

Her influential repertoire at the time included “Fair and Tender Ladies,” “Pretty Saro,” “Amazing Grace,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “One Morning in May,” “Barbara Allen,” “Lord Randall” and “Father Get Ready.”

Ritchie began recording in 1952. By the time of the “folk revival” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was fairly prominent. She often sang on Brand’s WNYC radio show. She was among the headliners at the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in 1959, along with Earl Scruggs, Odetta, Baez and Seeger.

The Kingston Trio and Judy Collins both relied on her arrangements of traditional songs on their early albums. Her melody for “Fair Nottamun Town” was used by Bob Dylan for his “Masters of War.” She demanded and received compensation.

In 1963, she recorded a landmark album with Doc Watson. During this same period, she began encouraging craftspeople to build mountain dulcimers and published instruction booklets about playing the ancient modal instrument.

Ritchie released the album None But One in 1977. It won a Rolling Stone magazine Critics’ Choice award. She was the subject of the 1996 nationally telecast documentary Mountain Born: The Jean Ritchie Story. She also appeared in the 1996 TBS six-hour documentary series America’s Music: The Roots of Country, produced by Nashville’s Tom Neff.

In 2002, Jean Ritchie received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship and was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. She suffered a stroke in 2009 and moved to Berea, KY, where she died.

Jean Ritchie is survived by sons Peter and Jonathan Pickow, both of whom have performed with her.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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